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The North Carolina Department of Commerce has helped more than 80,000 residents with barriers to employment join the workforce, department officials said Monday.

The agency issued more than $200 million in incentives in 2019 for employers who chose to hire veterans, residents who receive government assistance, have a criminal record or a history of substance abuse, among other obstacles.

“During a period of low unemployment, it’s particularly important that we bring more North Carolinians into the workforce who have faced challenges,” Commerce Secretary Anthony Copeland said in a news release. 

There are 5.1 million people in North Carolina’s labor force. The state's unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is slightly higher than the national rate of 3.5 percent. The unemployed population increased by 5,095 in 2019, when compared with 2018. Yet, the number of people employed increased by 137,509 in 2019. 

More employers were awarded federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit certifications in 2019 than 2018, and the agency also doubled its Federal Bonding program. Both programs reward and accommodate employers who extend hiring opportunities to a nontraditional base.          

About $198 million in tax incentives will be available in the 2019 tax year for 2,731 North Carolina employers who hired 79,443 new employees in 2019 from the eligible  groups. 

Employers can earn the Work Opportunity Tax Credit of $1,200 to $9,600 for each eligible employee they hire. More than $9.5 million more incentives can be claimed from the North Carolina workforce in 2019 than 2018.

The credit was made available through the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act passed by the Obama Administration in 2015.  

N.C. Commerce’s Federal Bonding program also processed 102 bonds, compared with 50 in 2018. The program provides free individual fidelity bonds to employers when they hire people with a history of arrest or conviction, substance abuse or a lack of work experience. 

The U.S. Department of Labor established the Federal Bonding program in 1966 to offer employers $5,000 for the first six months of employment to cover any associated risks.

Copeland hopes the programs’ coverage will continue to grow in 2020.

“This year, we will be encouraging even more employers to use Federal Bonding and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to support hiring these jobseekers, contributing to the success of their businesses and that of their communities,” he said.

Proponents of employment equity said expanding the workforce can lead to a decrease in poverty, higher income levels and more tax revenue. Critics said hiring outside of the traditional base exposes businesses to more crime and other legal troubles.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for three years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.